Absent an indictment, Brown is unbeatable
by RUSS STEWART
The contest for Cook County Circuit Court clerk is one of mind over matter. In short, for the great bulk of voters, it’s out of mind and it doesn’t matter.
For any politician or political candidate, a quick indictment is good to have . . . as long as the one indicted is your opponent. For Diane Shapiro, the Republican candidate for the office, an indictment of 16-year incumbent Dorothy Brown before Nov. 8 is potentially the difference between victory and defeat. Or maybe not.
Brown manages — or, as many suggest, mismanages — the county’s court system, with 1,800 employees and a $100 million budget. It will be recalled that Brown, with huge name recognition and a sizable political base in Chicago’s black community, was pre-slated for a fifth term in the early summer of 2015, slated in August and then unslated in October. The reason, according to county Democratic Party chairman Joe Berrios, was that Brown was "under investigation" by the feds, and an indictment before the March Democratic primary could have tipped the vote to reformer Jacob Meister. That would not be a good thing, because the clerk’s employees are good precinct workers and donors.
Understandably, Brown expressed outrage, saying that federal investigations are an "occupational hazard" and that the 5-year probe had been fruitless, unearthing no wrongdoing. Well, that’s changed a bit. A clerk’s employee, who was hired after he gave a $15,000 "loan" to Brown’s husband’s company, was indicted and pleaded guilty in March. The U.S. Attorney’s Office declared that the indictment was part of an "investigation of possible criminal violations in connection with the purchasing of jobs and promotions within the clerk’s office." The feds also subpoenaed all of Brown’s personal and office cell phone records.
Nevertheless, Brown’s dumping was of immense political benefit to her. Instead of facing a one-on-one race against Meister, Brown could posture as a "victim" of those cruel-hearted party bosses, including longtime rival Toni Preckwinkle, the Cook County Board chairman, who ran the slating operation. Cutting Brown adrift, the party bosses chose 8th Ward Alderman Michelle Harris, a onetime protege of the Strogers, who had no qualifications other than being a black woman and an ally of Preckwinkle.
"They made her a martyr," one party insider said before the primary. "She wasn’t even indicted." Black voters are very tolerant of the foibles of black politicians and very forgiving. The paradigm is Jesse and Sandy Jackson, whom the feds "investigated" for years for converting campaign funds to personal use. So what? Voters rallied behind them.
In the primary, Harris had two 70,000-piece mailers, bemoaning Brown’s legal troubles, hyping her slating, tying herself to President Barack Obama, and blasting Governor Bruce Rauner’s "dangerous agenda." Meister, a white lawyer, emphasized a litany of ills in the clerk’s office and said that it was a "cesspool of incompetence and mismanagement mired in the 1990s." Both candidates flopped egregiously, splitting the anti-Brown vote. Brown topped Harris 472,511-304,091, with Meister at 221,921.
Brown got 47.3 percent of the vote, winning the predominantly black city wards 171,785-82,793 and the black suburban townships 81,233-44,075. The vaunted "machine" looked feeble and inept, and a lot of black committeemen, who had patronage jobs in the clerk’s office, stuck with Brown.
The upcoming Brown-Shapiro face-off is basically "Meister Part II." Shapiro, a 33-year county employee who was an adult probation investigator when she retired, opposed Brown in 2008 and 2012, and she minces no words. "She runs a totalitarian office," Shapiro said. "Every clerk lives in fear of being fired." Shapiro said that Brown "makes no attempt to economize, no attempt to update, no attempt to train, and no attempt to comply" with the 2005 Illinois Supreme Court rule that mandates all counties have electronic case filing in place by Jan. 1, 2018. To be sure, with 100 million pieces of paper filed and 50 million computer scans per year, coupled with 2.4 million new cases (including 1.4 million traffic citations), the job is a bit daunting.
However, DuPage, McHenry, Lake, Will and Kane counties have electronic filing in place, with complaints and pleadings filed electronically and available online. Not Cook County. No pleadings are available online, only a case chronology. Shapiro noted that a 215-page "Transition and Strategic Planning Committee Report" from Nov. 14, 2001, called a "blueprint for change" in the clerk’s office, addressed the lack of an information technology plan. The report concluded that "technologies used are antiquated" with "lowered effectiveness" which "relies heavily on manual data entry" with "cash registers not linked to computerized case dockets." "Nothing’s changed in 15 years," Shapiro said. "It’s still a ‘corruptocracy’ and a kleptocracy."
Then there’s the warehousing problem. Every case filed gets a jacket, except for traffic. About 600,000 cases are filed annually in the Divorce, Chancery, Law, Municipal and County divisions. The jacket is simply a letter-sized cardboard envelope into which pleadings are manually stuffed daily by clerks, after docket-entry clerks nightly enter each document into the database, and all orders and judgments are microfilmed, not downloaded. That means that the clerk’s office can charge a fee for "certified copies."
The warehouse is on 54th Street, and it contains 50 million files. Active cases, meaning those unresolved, remain in the Daley Center, outlying courthouses or the Criminal Court building. With 500 county courtrooms, files are continually "in transit." In the Chancery Division, which handles foreclosures, 20- to 30-page complaints and motions for default or summary judgment are the norm. At the end of each day there is a 10-foot stack of paper to be filed somewhere. A jacket is replaced by a storage box, filing space is overwhelmed, and as Meister pointed out, there are thousands of "loose" filed documents piled on skids, awaiting the return of files which have departed to parts unknown. "It’s out of control," Shapiro said. "It takes the clerk 3 months or more just to prepare a record on appeal . . . to find the file and assemble the pleadings."
The federal courts have used the Public Access to Court Electronic Records system, and it works fine. Every filing is online instantly. Why can’t Brown install it?
Shapiro advocated some reforms:
First, make the clerk’s office nonelective. Shapiro proposes that the county’s 402 judges pick the clerk, since the post is judicially administrative, not political or policy-making. That will never happen. The clerk is an office to be occupied by a black Democrat now and forevermore. If Brown bites the dust, her replacement will be chosen by the county board, and it will be one of Preckwinkle’s South Side gal pals, probably Harris.
Second, day-of-filing imaging. Shapiro said that when a document is filed, as in the recorder’s office, it should be immediately scanned and posted online, obviating the need to get the pleading into the jacket.
Third, in-courtroom docket entry. In federal court the docket clerk instantaneously enters a real-time online order when the judge rules. In Brown’s court, lawyers write out a judge’s order, using carbon paper, and the order is microfilmed, maybe makes it into the jacket, and is eventually available for a fee. There should be copy machines in the courtroom, said Shapiro.
Fourth, the courtroom clerk should be responsible for the active files assigned to his or her judge. Shapiro said that often files are "in transit," and new pleadings or filings cannot be accessed online.
Fifth, stop using the office as a "patronage dumping ground" and hire technologically savvy clerks, of which there are 1,400. Most clerks are Grade 17 to 20, which means that they earn $20,000 to $30,000. "There is no quality assurance," Shapiro said. She said that most clerks are time servers, paper pushers and document filers. They tend to be technologically deficient, tend to be not college graduates, and tend to be politically connected. The job is desirable. Of the 260 working, non-weekend days per year, a clerk’s employee has 40 days off, the equivalent of 8 weeks, including paid vacation, personal and sick days, family health insurance and pension credits. Courtroom continuity is disrupted.
Then there are 400 prize jobs, Grade 23 and above, which pay $75,000 and up. As part of a "Friends and Family Plan," committeemen can get someone special on Brown’s payroll.
Sixth, have a "rocket docket." Shapiro said that there is no reason why cases can’t go to trial within 90 days of filing. The clerk’s office should work with judges to be an expediter, not just a paper manager.
Finally, Shapiro said that Brown was a "captive" of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, the collective bargaining unit of the clerks which was ousted in favor of the Teamsters. AFSCME kept wage hikes low, but the Teamsters got a bigger boost, which Brown refused to pay. A lawsuit forced Brown to pay $824,000 in back wages, interest and attorney fees.
Brown’s excuses revolve around privacy, training and cost. If every filed document, often filled with unsubstantiated allegations, goes online, anyone can search any name and find a treasure trove of dirt. Then there is the cost of upgrades, such as cash registers and scanners, and getting every filed document online for the benefit of the courtroom clerk, making jackets obsolete.
Brown has $1,040 in campaign funds on hand, to $2,649 for Shapiro. Cook County is too lopsidedly Democratic for any Republican to win. Obama won by 982,210 votes in 2008 and by 945,034 votes in 2012. Even with an indictment, Brown is unbeatable.
Send e-mail to russ@russstewart. com or visit his Web site at www. russstewart.com.